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Slug Guns - The More I Use Them, The More I Like Them

PhotoBy Randy D. Smith

-- I guess you could call it the "peasant gun" and I'm just peasant enough to know. Peter Capstick wrote in one of his many books that the slug gun is the "poor man's express rifle." He went on to say that many professional hunters in Africa use them for everything from bird hunting with shot loads to Cape buffalo with slugs under the right conditions. He would use nothing else for going after a wounded leopard. A pump shotgun loaded with buckshot saved his bacon more than once.

Photo: A pump action slug gun is one of the most versatile short range predator and deer guns you can own.

I've heard that shotguns are occasionally employed in the northland for bears, and I've read from several sources that at close range nothing is more devastating than heavy loads of buckshot for defense against man or beast. During my brief stint as a maximum-security corrections officer, I was twice handed a pump shotgun by the shift captain and told to follow him into a cell house ruckus. If things went bad, I was instructed to shoot into the floor in front of the inmates so the pellets would catch them in the legs. It is amazing how quickly a cell house run will clear when a pissed off shift commander and backup appear with 12 gauges.

Back when I did a lot of research on the Santa Fe Trail caravans of the 1830s to 1850s, I read a journal stating that there were two distinct opinions on what was the better firearm to carry on the trail. The riflemen liked the range and power of their plains rifles. The shot gunners, using both buck and ball loads, liked the flexibility of their muzzleloaders because they could hunt much more abundant small game as the caravans passed along the trail. There was a saying at the time that a man with a shotgun never went hungry. They also preferred shotguns for standing night guard. In an age when spectacles were not commonly worn, many men couldn't see well enough to be proficient riflemen.

PhotoPhoto: A selection of Foster style slugs that have proven to be very effective in both rifled and smooth bore slug guns. The Brenneke slug has minimal recoil traits and is a nice choice for light weight guns. The Remington slug is all I used for years. The Hevi-Shot slugs are both accurate and deadly. The Federal Tru-Ball slugs have produced 50 yard accuracy from a smooth bore that will rival sabot slugs from a rifled gun.

Okay, I'll buy into that. As nearsighted as I am, I can't even see the front sight on a rifle without my glasses. For years after graduating from college, I was just a poor cowpoke and hardscrabble farmer who also taught school to make a living. Before I realized that I could make a better living doing almost anything else, I carried a bolt-action Marlin Goose Gun with the barrel shortened to 25 inches behind the seat of my pickup. A guy wanted an old camera of mine, and I traded for the Marlin.

During pheasant season, if I spotted a rooster while working, I'd fish out that Marlin, load the clip with some no. 6s and go on an impromptu, usually successful, pheasant hunt. In spite of that sawed off Marlin having the same choke as a sewer pipe, I've knocked down birds at 50 yards using 3-inch shells.

Calving season went from the last week of February until the middle of April, and that Marlin rode in the seat just on the other side of the vitamin A shots and ear tags, loaded with 00 buck, with a handful of 1-ounce rifled slugs jammed in the glove compartment. Coyotes, feral dogs, and pushy varmints got the buckshot and suffering critters with no hope got the slugs. That Marlin seldom got cleaned and very rarely oiled. The stock was scarred from bouncing around on bare metal in a four-wheel-drive vehicle that was used to feed cattle, pull a horse trailer, fix fences, ear tag calves, plow snow drifts, ford creeks, and herd balky bulls.

Whoever shortened the barrel did a poor job of removing the old finish, and I just poured on the cold blue to keep it from rusting. I wasn't much interested in hunting or fancy firearms in those days, just surviving. I had better at home, but they were too good for that kind of abuse.

Although I didn't realize it then, that old Marlin might have been the most versatile and useful firearm I could have owned. I got a whole 50 bucks out of it on a trade a few years back and thought I got the better of the deal. It was a poor man's express rifle before I ever knew what an express rifle was. But I was raised in a world where there were only two firearms worth having: a .22 rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun. In central and western Kansas before the 1970s, a fellow seldom even saw a deer or a turkey much less hunted one. How much the world has changed since then!

PhotoPhoto: One of the most accurate slug guns I've ever used was this Benelli Nova 12 gauge with an Ithaca rifled barrel and 4X shotgun scope. This gun would shoot 3 inch 100 yard groups from the bench. I took this kull buck on a running shot at 70 yards using Hevi Shot rifled slugs.

When I finally learned that a person could make a living wage and have enough left over for toys if he got out of farming, I started experimenting with rifles, shotguns and handguns. I even became an outdoor writer on the side. The pay was almost as terrible as ranching but it was fun I've stayed with it for nearly 25 years.

A few seasons ago, I went back to experimenting with slug guns due to range concerns I had for deer hunting in the same general area where I used to cowboy. When I sold my Mossberg collection because all it was doing was sitting in my gun safe collecting dust, I went shopping for an all-purpose slug gun for close-range coyote calling and jump shooting deer.

I walked into a Dick's Sporting Goods store in eastern Kansas looking for a good smooth bore, pump-action slug gun. Now slug guns are about as popular as Bill Clinton and horsemeat steaks in Kansas. The guy behind the gun counter had a special deal on a 2- or 3-year-old, new-in-the-box Remington Model 870 Deer Gun with a fully rifled 20-inch barrel and open rifle-style sights. He had it on sale for 50 bucks less than a new smooth-bore, plastic stock Mossberg Maverick. I bought it.

Damaging the rifling using shot didn't concern me because I like cheap rifled slugs a whole bunch better than expensive sabots anyway. They work just as well out to 70 yards on deer and beyond that I'll use a rifle. So I just shuck in the no. 4 bucks for coyotes and 1-ounce slugs for brush country whitetails.

The point of all this rambling is that as serviceable as that old Marlin was this Remington is even better. It's faster on target, quicker to load, much more accurate, and even more flexible. It lives behind the seat of my pickup and is usually loaded with no. 4 buckshot, because I've found them better than 00s for calling coyotes. It is a wonderful feral hog slug shooter, especially in the thick country where they love to tear up jack and ruin crops. It also does very well for the occasional varmint that needs some attitude adjustment.

Now that I'm an outdoor writer who can make a decent living at grant writing and can afford to take big game hunts, the Remington makes a great camp gun as well as for travel trailer and household personal defense. Who needs a handgun when 12-gauge buckshot has the potential of doing a whole bunch more damage to some villain without going through thin camper or house walls and greatly upsetting the neighbors?

We've all read the magazine articles berating the accuracy of the slug gun but I'm not finding those statements to be entirely accurate. If I want a rifle, I'll use one. But for those sudden shots at freshly flushed whitetails out to 50 yards, a quick shouldering, fast aligning, short-barreled slug gun is just pretty darned hard to beat.

You're shooting more like you would at a pheasant rather than a long-range mule deer. You take your lead, watch your follow through, pull the trigger and watch the deer tumble. 

For close country coyote calling a shotgun is excellent. There are only seconds to recognize a coyote or bobcat that was suckered into a call and realized at the last instant that you are not some poor suffering jack rabbit. A shotgun is often the difference between making the shot or just saying, "Damn, I almost had a shot at him." Shot loads of no. 4 buck do not do the hide damage that many rifle cartridges do at 30 to 40 yards, either.

Yeah, a 6-inch group is probably the best you can do at 100 yards from the bench on a really good day with a slug gun. But then again, I've given up on dragging benches, target rifles, and fancy scopes through the whitetail woods, hog tangles, and sagebrush coyote trails.

For jump hunting on the swing at that white-tailed deer in the cedars, with only a heartbeat to spare and never-ever more than 5 seconds to make the shot, that open-sighted slug gun is probably just as likely as any lever-action, pump, or semi-auto deer rifle, and a whole lot quicker than a bolt gun. You've got to get the sights on the critter before you can make the shot, and I've found that a short-barreled, open-sighted Remington 870 rates right up there with any of them for snap shooting.

With 1-ounce soft lead slugs, if you get a solid hit on a deer, it will normally knock it to the ground where it's hit. Same thing with feral hogs, a critter that I've never shot beyond 70 yards because of the crap and corruption that is always between him and me. A 1-ounce rifled slug is a shoulder breaking, heart and lung wrecking, hog killing machine at the ranges where most feral hogs are shot.

So the more I use a slug gun, the more I like it. It isn't a glamorous choice, even cheap slugs are more expensive than most popular rifle cartridges, the recoil is heavier, and some long shots cannot be taken.

On the other hand, you can hunt just about anything with one if you keep a selection of no. 6 birdshot, no. 4 buckshot, and slug shells handy. A slug gun is dependable, quick handling and far more accurate for short-range hunting situations than many believe. And, for white-tailed deer hunting in traditional whitetail environments, there are few handicaps to offset the benefits. I agree with Mr. Capstick about the versatility of a rifled shotgun.

I recently had a friend ask if I was interested in going with him after some Colorado elk. He had free room and board lined up with his brother-in-law, who would also act as a guide. This made it a pretty cheap hunt and there were plenty of elk to choose from. The only drawback, he said, was that it was in a slug gun only unit. What did I think?

I just smiled.

Randy D. Smith

By Paige @ Wednesday, July 18, 2007 7:43 PM
Very helpful article! I love to see more from this writer. Sounds like the guy knows his stuff. Watch out bucks!

By pbg40g @ Thursday, August 09, 2007 12:02 PM
Now to find me a Remington 870!

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